Do We Really Need More Immigrant Workers?

Among U.S.-born, labor force participation has not returned to pre-COVID levels

By Steven A. Camarota on January 16, 2023

Washington Times, January 16, 2023

Many commentators and media reports have called for more immigration to make up for the slowdown in new arrivals that occurred during the pandemic. Immigrant workers are supposedly “missing” from the job market, creating a labor “shortage.”

In reality, the latest data shows that the number of immigrant workers is well above pre-pandemic levels. To the extent that workers are “missing,” it is due to the decadeslong decline in the labor force participation rate — the share working or looking for work — of the U.S.-born. The decline is especially pronounced among less-educated men. This situation deprives the economy of workers and contributes to a host of social problems.

Of course, most working-age people not in the labor force are out of it for a good reason, including caring for children or attending school, but the long-term decline has little to do with such responsibilities. The falloff in labor force participation is associated with numerous undesirable outcomes such as substance abuse, welfare dependency, mental health issues, crime, family formation and early death.

Despite this decline and its associated pathologies, the media do not typically mention it when discussing the need for more workers, nor do Democratic and Republican politicians, who support allowing more immigrant workers in. They may be distracted by the deceptively low unemployment rate, which includes only those who are actively looking for work and not those who have dropped out of the labor force entirely. In any case, the willingness of elected officials to accept the argument that we need more immigrant workers illustrates an important fact: The availability of immigrant labor allows us to ignore the plight of all those on the economic sidelines.

We face a stark choice: Either we figure out how to get more working-age Americans back into jobs, or we allow more immigrants in and then try to deal with the social problems that low labor force participation exacerbates.

The latest data from November of this year shows that 2.1 million fewer U.S.-born workers were employed than in November 2019, before the pandemic. By contrast, the number of immigrants working, including those here illegally, was up 1.9 million over the same time period. If immigration has rebounded so much, why all the coverage of a supposed shortfall?

Part of the reason could be the much-published Census Bureau estimates showing migration was very low through mid-2021. But those figures are now out of date. Some media coverage also cites an analysis by UC-Davis economists Giovanni Peri and Reem Zaiour, who argue that the pandemic slowdown led to 1.7 million “missing” immigrant workers through June 2021. But their analysis focused on the working age in general, not actual workers, and their findings do not reflect the current reality. By November 2021, the number of immigrant workers was back to the 2019 level, and by November 2022, it greatly exceeded it.

Among the U.S.-born, labor force participation has not returned to pre-COVID levels. This is typical of past recessions in which the U.S.-born drop out of the labor force and do not fully return even when the economy strengthens. This long-term decline has been studied extensively, including by the Obama White House and the Federal Reserve. One of the best books on the subject is Nicolas Eberstadt’s “Men Without Work.”

In sum, the labor force participation rate of working-age men, excluding inmates, has declined steadily since the 1960s, particularly for those without a bachelor’s degree. This is true whether the working age is defined as 16 to 64, 20 to 64, or only those of “prime work-age,” 25 to 54. It has affected U.S.-born White, Black and Hispanic men. The rate for U.S.-born women generally increased until about 2000 but has declined since, again mainly among those without a bachelor’s degree.

The decline significantly reduces the availability of workers. We may never return to the labor force participation rates of the 1960s (or even 1980s) for men. But if the labor force participation rate of the U.S.-born (16 to 64) as a whole returned to its level in 2000, there would be 6.5 million more people in the labor force. If the rate returned to its 2006 level, before the Great Recession, 3.7 million workers would be added. Even if it returned to the 2019 level, it would still add 1 million workers.

The explanations for the long-term labor-force decline are as varied as the proposed solutions. Some blame overly generous and easily accessible welfare and disability systems. Others emphasize the large share of less-educated men with criminal records, while some believe structural changes in the economy — particularly declining wages for the non-college educated — explain much of the decline.

Competition with immigrants has likely also played a role. The National Academies’ comprehensive 2016 study found that immigration reduces wages for some U.S.-born workers, which almost certainly undermines work incentives. An analysis of EEOC discrimination cases and other research indicates that immigrants sometimes displace the U.S.-born. More than one recent academic paper shows that as immigrants move into an area, the U.S.-born tend to move out, likely to avoid competition. Of course, not every job taken by an immigrant is one lost by a native, but allowing millions of immigrant workers in has consequences.

Some may think immigrants take only the jobs that Americans don’t want, but the U.S.-born are a majority of workers in all but six of the 474 government-defined occupations. Yes, agricultural labor is majority immigrant, but such jobs account for less than 1% of the workforce. Of course, getting less-educated Americans back into jobs will involve the difficult task of reforming our welfare and disability systems, combating the opioid and mental health crises, improving job training, reexamining trade policies and reinstilling the value of work. Allowing wages to rise, partly by reducing immigration, would certainly help.

Many who are gainfully employed may still think, “If Americans won’t work, let’s bring in immigrants who will.” But this approach has many drawbacks. The welfare, disability, law enforcement and health care costs associated with low labor force participation are paid for by taxpayers. Furthermore, the crime and social disorder that often plague communities where many working-age men don’t work are not confined to those places.

Finally, those calling for more immigration to fill jobs must acknowledge that the number of legal and illegal immigrants is already at a record high of 48.4 million. One in 7 U.S. residents is now an immigrant, just slightly below the record set in 1890. Beyond the labor market, these numbers have profound implications for the nation’s schools, health care system, physical infrastructure and social cohesion.

Using immigration to meet the desire of employers for more workers may be superficially attractive, but it cannot be considered in isolation. As a practical matter, allowing more immigrants in means turning a blind eye to the destructive impact of idleness among the native-born. Our fellow Americans have a greater claim on our conscience than do prospective immigrants living in other countries who wish to come here.